American and US Airways are Doing Their Reservation System Migration Differently and It’s Paying Off

When it comes to airline mergers, there is no bigger single milestone from a traveler’s perspective than the migration to a single reservation system. After that point, all reservations are in the same place and under the same airline code. It’s really when the other entity stops existing from a customer perspective. American and US Airways, having made it look easy so far with a drama-free frequent flier program combination and achievement of a single operating certificate, are now looking to complete the trifecta with an unblemished record. They’ll have it far easier than United/Continental or US Airways/America West did back in the day. Here’s why this is different and why the chances for success are extremely high.

When you hear about a reservation system migration, you probably get an uncomfortable feeling. After all, the biggest, most recent mergers have not gone well on that front. Look no further than the US Airways and America West merger to see a job gone wrong. Then look at United and Continental to see a job gone wronger. While there were a lot of issues with that one, the biggest was probably with upgrades for frequent fliers.

Since American and US Airways already did their frequent flier program merge without incident, that won’t be an issue here. What you see today with American is what you’ll see in the future. This is all about getting US Airways bookings and tickets off of the US Airways reservation system and on to American’s.

There are a lot of bookings living in the US Airways system today. But American is using what it calls a “drain down” to make sure it has to migrate very few of those. I had a long chat with Maya Leibman, Chief Information Officer, and Kerry Philipovitch, SVP Customer Experience, to get into the weeds on how this is all going to go down.

This situation is a bit unique in that American’s AA code survives as does its Sabre reservation system. With United/Continental, it was United’s UA code that survived and Continental’s SHARES reservation system. With US Airways and America West, it was the US code and the America West SHARES system. For this reason alone, American and US Airways will have a much easier time.

Total Universe of American US Airways Bookings

Let’s attack this using percentages. Think of the total universe of all American and US Airways bookings in both reservation systems as 100 percent. In both the United/Continental and US Airways/America West mergers, all 100 percent of those bookings had to be migrated. With United/Continental, any United bookings had to migrate over to SHARES. And any Continental bookings had to migrate to the UA code living in a different area of SHARES. That’s why you had to get a new confirmation number regardless of whether your booking was with United or Continental before the merger.

With American, since the AA code and the legacy Sabre system live on together, that means absolutely nothing changes with any of the bookings and tickets that are on American today. With that, we can already eliminate 60 percent of the total American/US Airways bookings from having to migrate. That leaves just the 40 percent of bookings, those on US Airways in the legacy US Airways system, to worry about. But American is cutting that down much further.

American Bookings Don't Migrate

American has already started to soften the blow by asking travel agents to issue tickets on US Airways for travel after October 1 on American ticket stock (001, for those who speak that language) instead of on US Airways ticket stock (037). That means even if you have a reservation on US Airways, your ticket will already be an American ticket and will exist in American’s system. But this is just the appetizer. The real work begins when the drain down starts.

When exactly is that? We don’t know yet. All we know is that the migration is expected to occur in the fourth quarter of this year, and the drain down begins 90 days before that. That means the drain down could begin as early as July. Considering American’s track record in this merger so far, I’d bet we’d see the drain down begin soon after the 4th of July weekend and then the cutover would occur in October. (You don’t want to do this during Thanksgiving or Christmas.)

So, what is it that happens on this July date when the drain down begins? American will put out a huge schedule change. The schedule change won’t effect anything within 90 days of that date. It’ll be business as usual during that time. But 90 days after that date, US Airways flights will no longer exist. All bookings will be made on American from that point. (The US Airways website will just point you to for travel after that date.) So if it’s July 12 that the change occurs (random guess), then October 10 would be the day that US Airways flights disappear and reservations stop being made in the US Airways SHARES system.

Once that schedule change is done, the drain down begins. Looking at the booking curves, American knows that about 90 percent of bookings are made for travel within 90 days of the booking date. That means that when US Airways stops taking new bookings for October and beyond as early as July, 90 percent of the bookings on record will be flown before the US Airways system disappears.

Most US Airways Bookings Will Be Flown

That means all travel booked after the cutover date would have to be on American Airlines with an American Airlines confirmation number and an American Airlines ticket in the American Airlines reservation system. So when that cutover date arrives, only 10 percent of the bookings that existed in the US Airways reservation system (4 percent of the combined airline bookings) will need to be migrated. So, 4 percent vs the 100 percent in United/Continental. That’s tiny.

This can all be handled in advance. Once the schedule change occurs, travel agents will be able to reissue their tickets and get things moved over to American long before the cutover date. If all goes according to plan, this should be a non-event. If it doesn’t go according to plan, this could get ugly. After all, American is committing to a hard cutover date when it does that big schedule change 90 days out. There is no going back once that’s set.

You’d think if there are issues, it would lie in the hands of airport agents who can’t handle the new system. But that’s highly unlikely. All the US Airways agents use an overlay called QIK which sits on top of the US Airways system. American took QIK and had it sit on top of the American system so nothing will change for US Airways gate agents other than various policies and procedures that may not yet have been harmonized. (United agents, meanwhile, had to learn native SHARES commands, which was a disaster.) But the agents will all get trained on these few differences.

This is a pretty slick way of handling the transition. The way they explain it, it’s hard to imagine this going wrong. In fact, it should have almost no impact at all on the traveling public.

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43 Comments on "American and US Airways are Doing Their Reservation System Migration Differently and It’s Paying Off"

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From the way the frequent flyer account transition went, I would expect this to go smoothly as well. We had US Airways reservations / tickets using a US Airways companion certificate and I was nervous when the transition date was announced However the change occurred, our AA ff account numbers magically appeared on the reservation and miles from US Airways were combined. I was impressed with how smooth it was. Flights had no problems. Most flight attendants remembered it was an American flight now. We were on united during that merger and many seemed to make a point of saying… Read more »

It seems that a few of the old continental crew STILL make this announcement today! I always want to extend them a middle finger when they say it.

Texas Air

Why would you do that? The Continental crews are almost always the friendlier and more professional and ones on the merged United/Continental Airlines.


I have long been a fan of Doug Parker and his team–your report further confirms that. Go, Doug.

David SF eastbay

At least what they are doing sound like it makes sense, keeping the computer system of which ever airlines code is going to be kept.

If they did this as you guess in summer and most flights are taken in 90 days, that still leaves the big Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years rush of travel in danger of being screwed up doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until after the end of year holidays just to be safe?


I thought the U.S. Air overlay already worked with SABRE from the American West/US Air merger?


Yes, and that is something that made the whole thing even easier! QIK (at US Airways) already worked on top of SABRE in the old US Airways days, so they needed to resurrect that connection and make some updates and voila – the current US-SHARES toolset works with US-SABRE and AA-SABRE.

Bob Crandall

Cranky, I don’t remember if the AA mergers with Reno Air and TWA went smooth. Do you remember?


To me the AA/US merger is going quite well compared to the Continentalization of UA aka the UA/CO merger.


QIK is the concern I have.

Having dealt with both airlines recently, extensively, I find the US agents have far fewer options and access to info than their AA counterparts that are on native Sabre.

Will the US agents learn native Sabre after a QIK-start or will they dummy down the AA agents, taking away alot of necessary information and tools that they currently have?


Glad to see the merger process so smooth for AA/US. The only other airline merger that I think went this smoothly was the Southwest/Airtran merger, but it took about twice as long…

Not a fan of Dougie, but I guess after you get a few mergers under your belt you learn a thing or two about perfecting the process!

As a software engineer, this design was clearly thought through by engineers. Doing a “overnight switchover” approach, like United did, is recipe for insanity with zero margin for error that no good software engineer would advocate. Effectively here, the big area for error is the massive schedule change. If that goes wrong they’re in trouble. Pretty much everything else can be handled incrementally or case-by-case. The QIK/SABRE layer is the other area that’s ripe for troubles in the future, but at least it still isn’t an overnight switchover. I do hope they eventually unify all the systems, because that’s more… Read more »
Nick Barnard

But airlines do big schedule changes all the time. Thats something they’ve got under their belt pretty well

Nick Barnard
The other genius thing which is sort of implied, but not stated directly is that this will affect a minimal number of passengers, and the airline will get a minimum of 90 days to migrate the bookings to Saabre. I wouldn’t be surprised if the migration plan for the bookings is going to be taking a few steps at a time. Migrate a random 5% of the bookings, check them, if there are problems fix the migration code, then migrate another 5%, check those. Wash rinse and repeat until that 4% of bookings is all migrated. The other little devil… Read more »
You say all of this should have “…no impact on the travelling public.” Probably so, but few of us, well, maybe just me, everytime I run into a problem with the airline, which is nearly every time I fly, I don’t know what system it is that is making things difficult. As they say, we don’t know what we don’t know. The other day, with UA at IAD, things went awry with the schedules, so off I go to customer service for re-booking. Wonderful people, even if I complain about them all the time, but soon something comes up to… Read more »
Justin Does...

Great post as usual, Cranky. Question for you. Do you know if AA intends to merge US reservations beyond the cut-off date (say those bookings for flights after Oct 10) into AA reservations during the drain-down period? I don’t know why they would need to wait for the cutoff date to transition those reservations since the flights won’t take place until after the drain-down period. Thoughts?

So what happens with a reservation made in with flights on US metal scheduled for after the 90-day transition period? I assume nothing, aside from a possible timing change and a switch to an AA flight number, since the itinerary already has an AA ticket number and PNR? Curious, as I have a trip scheduled late this October that falls into that category (AA ticket number, AA PNR, but with 2 segments on US that also carry a separate US PNR). I guess the only thing that concerns me somewhat is that apparently the US airport agents are only… Read more »

Isn’t this pretty much how WN and FL integrated? I didn’t understand the details, but it sounds similar. Brett, is there any way you could do a comparison of the WN/FL and AA/US integrations?

Phil Pott
You can’t seriously believe the accounts were merged without incident? Ever since it happend I have flown American four times on eight legs and they have yet to have my name appear on the upgrade list on either the gate screen or the app. My schedule is so fixed I buy tickets far in advance and hence get upgraded between 70 and 75 percent of the time. I’m zero for eight right now due to this “minor” glitch. They say it is because I bought the tickets before the auto upgrades were put in which was done to facilitiate the… Read more »

Cranky – I think you might have forgotten, or not known, that all bookings via the US site have had both AA and US PNR’s since maybe the beginning of the year. So it looks like there’s a booking both in Shares and Sabre. If that’s the case, wouldn’t all they need to do is make sure the dupe is in Sabre and then delete it from Shares?


I work as a reservations agent, and your description of the draindown process is clearer and more concise than anything provided to us internally so far. Thank you. I am now officially less stressed about what’s coming up and what to expect – especially when they really do “flip the switch” and we move to one single reservation system.

Do any of you people actually fly? I just completed purchasing a ticket on AA/US and it was truly the worst purchase experience of my 64 year life. I ended up having to purchase from a third party because I could not get the website to work. My flights are half on AA and half on US Air and I can’t choose seats on a single site. I needed two sites and 2 flights still show no way to choose seats. Further, my reservation does not reflect the choices made on one site on the other. The price does not… Read more »
I thought US AIRWAYS bought AMERICAN AIRLINES, but it feels like the reverse. American does not allow anything special for status members anymore. It is not worth booking with them. I go out of my way to book with US AIRWAYS, and even changing my meeting times so I can rearrange my flight so my company travel site will allow me to pick the higher US AIRWAYS/AMERICAN ticket price, but it is not worth it anymore. I get lousy seats, am not allowed to pick exit rows anymore without paying, and get no special treatment at all. I am beginning… Read more »
I am a little more than a cranky flyer, I am a very reluctant flyer. I am tall and cannot sit in a cramped seat for hours on end any longer without pain, plus I have no A$$ left, so it hurts my rear end to sit for so long with my knees up to my chin and a LARGE person who is flowing into my seat so much so that I can’t move. I flew for over 20 years with the US Air Force and I know a thing or two about the FAA and the rules the airlines… Read more »

I found this article today, just two days after the cutover was completed, and I’m quite impressed how close you got to the actual process, including just missing the date by a week.

American seems to have learned many lessons from the past merger, and while I don’t like the trend towards really dense economy class cabins that Parker is pursuing, they do get props for a relatively trouble free merger.